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The (Lego) Hero’s Journey, Part Two

It’s been a few weeks since The LEGO Movie came out and proved that everything was indeed awesome. As I said I would before it came out, I’m going to break down The LEGO Movie with The Hero’s Journey.

But wait.

Two things you gotta do before you read on. First; read that blog post. I’m not gonna bother explaining The Hero’s Journey again. Second: watch the movie. Seriously. It’s a great movie in the first place and, equally importantly, I’m going to ruin the film’s big, magical twist. And I don’t use that word lightly.

And in case you missed it:

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. GO WATCH THE MOVIE THEN COME BACK AND READ THIS.

 

That clear? Alright. Here we go.

(I’ll be more or less using TV Tropes’ outline here; with splashes of others. Do note, some of the pieces can be juggled around, as they are in this film.)

The LEGO Movie opens with Lord Business defeating Vitruvius and getting the Kragle, at which point Vitruvius makes a prophecy about The Special stating that the Special will, be, well special. That’s step one.

Then we see Emmet, our protagonist, living out his normal, dull, life. His life is boring and routine. This is Thomas Anderson going to work in The Matrix, this is Luke on the farm.

Emmet’s normal world comes crumbling down when, after work, he falls down a hole and finds the Piece of Resistance. Like Thomas Anderson/Neo before him, Emmet then finds himself a captive of the bad guys only to be shortly freed by someone else. This is his Call to Adventure, something he resists at first.

Then Emmet must cross the first threshold, in this case being when he and Wyldstyle break out of Bricksburg into the Wild West pursued by Bad Cop. In Star Wars this is when the Falcon leaves Tatooine pursued by storm troopers. Alternately, look at when Neo leaves the Matrix for the first time. Emmet’s life has changed for good. The following chunk (and next few beats) are part of the Road of Trials, where Emmet is tested and really yanked out of the world. Think Neo’s training with Morpheus, where he finds that he knows Kung Fu.

Emmet meets the mentor, Vitruvius, here; a vital part in any hero’s journey. Like Obi Wan to Luke and Morpheus to Neo, and Dumbledore to Harry; this character aids the hero on his journey and urges him on. As Vitruvius does.

Next up is the Land of Adventure, which TV Tropes describes as “a strange, dreamlike realm, where logic is topsy-turvy and the “rules” are markedly different from the ordinary world.” In other words: Cloud Cuckoo Land. Here Emmet is developed and the set up laid for his Night Sea Voyage.

Which, courtesy of the attack on Cloud Cuckoo Land and a hastily built sub, actually takes place at sea. Now, this Night Sea Voyage marks the end of the Road of Trials and when the Hero mounts an attack on the enemy stronghold. In The Matrix this is Neo and Trinity rescuing Morpheus; in Star Wars this is saving Leia. For The LEGO Movie this means stealing a hyperdrive and getting to the Kragle.

Alright folks. I’m getting into the real spoiler bit. If you haven’t seen the film yet, bail now!

 

An optional part of the monomyth (Joseph Campbell would argue it was essential) is the hero’s Death and Resurrection. This messianic tropes is on full display in The Matrix with Neo, and in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. To my surprise and immense pleasure, The LEGO Movie throws it in. Emmet sacrifices himself to save the Master Builders. Basically, he dies. The proceedings in the ‘real’ world with Finn and his Dad (about which I could write a whole ‘nother rant essay on the way it doesn’t feel jarring because of how it masterfully works in the themes, but I digress) leads to Emmet’s resurrection. Like Neo, Emmet can overcome death and return to his world.

And returns he does in what’s dubbed the Apotheosis. Ever trusty TV Tropes defines this thusly: “The Hero comes to view the world in a new and radically different way, either because of a critical breakthrough he’s made or some crucial information he’s uncovered.” Where Neo can fly and defeat Agent Smith, Emmet can harness the full powers of a Master Builder (his Ultimate Boon), creating a construction mech and charging through Micro Managers and back to Lord Business’ command brick, in order to have his Fight Against the Big Bad.

With Lord Business redeemed, Emmet makes his Return to Bricksburg, changed and, well, special.

 

So there you have it, a fairly in-depth (but not as much as it could be) look at The LEGO Movie through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth as defined by TV Tropes (and myself). It’s a beautiful structure which, honestly, I haven’t seen pulled off this magnificently since The Matrix.

Seriously folks, this movie is awesome.

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Formulaic Formulas

There are a lot of people who, when it comes to movies, say there’s a distinct formula to how everything works. Some people blanch at the thought, others say it’s blame for the derivative nature of, y’know, everything.

Well, there is a formula.

Sort of: there are these certain moments you can use to plot the course of a movie’s story. Just about every good story will hit these beats. They may not always be as pronounced as in another film, but they do happen.

Now, this isn’t bad. This isn’t the same plot, it’s the same moments. Campbell outlined this over sixty years ago where he outlined the Hero’s Journey in his Hero With a Thousand Faces. For my purposes (and as a way to prep for homework), I’m gonna be using what Viki King lists in her book How To Write a Movie in 21 Days mixed with what I learnt last semester.

Let’s look at Iron Man. Because I love the movie and I analyzed it for a midterm. As the movie opens we’re introduced to Tony Stark; genius, billionaire, playboy. We’re also introduced to a central theme: Tony’s irresponsibility. Now that we’ve got all that set up, it’s time for stuff to happen, like getting shrapnel in his chest. This changes his life, so what’s he gonna do about it? Tony opts to make his life count and builds the prototype Iron Man armor and breaks out, returns home, and shuts down Stark Industries’ weapons manufacturing; thereby crossing the point of no return.

Welcome to Act Two. This is where we spend time dealing more with Tony’s inner workings, figuring out who he is. He builds a new armor, continuously improving it, almost as a symbol of his working on himself. Of course, if this was all that happened in Act Two it’d get boring quick. So we force Tony to recommit to his goal. How? His weapons are still being given to the bad guys. He suits up and fights them, proving that yes: he is Iron Man, he’s done just sitting around. From here things only escalate. Obadiah Stane becomes more obvious in his villainy, leading up to where the worst possible thing happens: Tony loses his Arc Reactor and Stane goes after Pepper. This in turn leads us to the climax: Tony suits up with an underpowered Arc Reactor and fights Stane and wins. So concludes Act Two.

Now we’re tying up lose ends, Tony’s alright and, in a press conference, says that, yes, he is Iron Man. And the movie ends.

We can run Iron Man 3 through a similar break down: Tony’s introduced as an insomniac, the big issue of the movie comes up shortly after (he feels vulnerable; is he Iron Man or is the armor Iron Man?). Then his world changes: the next Mandarin attack leaves Happy Hogan injured. So Tony issues a challenge and his mansion is destroyed, creating his point of no return. Act Two begins with a broken Tony who, over time, rebuilds himself. We soon reach the midpoint where Tony recommits to his goal: he goes to the Florida mansion to continue doing the hero thing. This is followed shortly after by the worst thing possible: Air Force One is attacked, Pepper captured, and Rhody’s armorless. Then the climax at the docks and the resolution at the cliff. See? Still works.

But what about a movie that’s not about fighting bad guys? Like (500) Days of Summer?

Tom’s normal world is introduced by the narrator and the theme is brought up shortly after (what is love?). Then we’re given the inciting incident: Tom and Summer meet. The point of no return comes when they sleep together. From there we build their relationship, culminating in the midpoint where they break up and Tom fights with himself about whether or not go after her. The worst possible thing is portrayed to Regina Spektor’s “Hero”: Tom find out she’s engaged. The climax is Tom looking for work and Summer getting married. The resolution? The talk on the bench and Tom meeting Autumn.

Movies need these beats; without the midpoint Act Two starts to sag and gets dull. Without the worst thing possible happening (even if it’s not earth shattering), the climax loses its potency. We need some semblance of normalcy for the protagonist to leave behind. It all has to happen in some form, scale, or another.

Anyway, with all that done, I now have a quartet of movies to watch and break down. See you next week.

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